Authors: Linda Wolfe
The Professor and the Prostitute
and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness
M.P. and J.P.W
Crime has been greatly on the increase among the lower classes [but] what strikes me as the strangest thing is that in the higher classes, too, crime is increasing proportionately. In one place one hears of a student's robbing the mail on the high road; in another place people of good social position forge false banknotes; in Moscow of late a whole gang has been captured who used to forge lottery tickets, and one of the ringleaders was a lecturer in universal history; then our secretary was murdered from some obscure motive of gain.â¦ How are we to explain this demoralization of the civilized part of our society?
Crime and Punishment
The stories collected here are not about murder and madness among the rich and famous nor among the poor and downtrodden. They are about murder and madnessâmania, paranoia, sociopathyâamong people who inhabit the middle class. My protagonists are doctors, academics, businessmen, schoolteachers, and the children of such individuals, the kinds of people I, and many others like me, might know, entertain, work beside.
As a reader, I've always been most drawn to books about people with whom I could identify. When it comes to true crime stories, books about upper-crust villains who knock off their heiress wives or their miserly fathers in order to collect more millions, or about lower-depth, deprived poor devils who kill at the drop of a wallet or go crazy from the sheer shambles of their surroundings never entirely appeal to me. The lives of the leading figures seem remote. I like meeting on paper individuals I recognize, wandering in a world that is, somehow, familiar. And if ever I feel I'm being parochial in my taste, I remind myself that the novel came about in the eighteenth century because suddenly there was a new class of peopleâthe middle classâand they wanted to read works about themselves or people like them.
All of this is by way of explaining why it was that when, in the mid-1970s, I first began to write about murderers and manics, sociopaths and suicides, I always chose to explore the lives of individuals from my own background. But there was something more. It seemed to me that one of the most important questions a writer might address when writing of crime and craziness was: “Am I capable of committing a crime or of suddenly going haywire?” It is a question that haunts many people when they hear of someone they've known who has gotten into trouble with the law or unexpectedly killed himself, and it always used to tantalize me. I wanted to address that question, but I felt that the motivations and even the psychology of the very rich and the very poor were so different from my own that I couldn't really put myself in their place. So, remembering the age-old admonition to writers, “Write about what you know,” I stuck to criminals and disturbed characters who inhabited, as I did, the great middle of society.
Although I'm a “psychological” writer, concerned with what lies beneath the surface of behavior, I see my decision to write about murder and madness as primarily a literary matter. In the late 1950s, I was studying for a graduate degree in literature, teaching English at a college, and writing short stories. I had little use for journalism then. Fiction, I felt, was the only suitable practice for a writer seeking to maneuver the minds of men and women.
I'd learned this from my professors, who almost never discussed nonfiction except for works of criticism and literary biography. I suppose I was provincial, but I was a product of my times. Tom Wolfe (no relation of mine, I'm sad to say) has written of literary values in the fifties: “The literary upper class were the novelists. They were regarded as the only âcreative' writers, the only literary artists. They had exclusive entry to the soul of man, the profound emotions, the eternal mysteries.” As to journalists, “They were regarded chiefly as day laborers who dug up slags of raw information for writers of higher âsensibility' to make better use of.” Not wanting to be a mere documentarianâfor that's how I viewed journalistsâI concentrated on writing fiction.
By the early 1960s, however, having realized I was a writer and not a scholar, I'd given up teaching and graduate school and taken a job at Time Inc. I was in the belly of the journalistic whale, but I ignored my surroundings. A researcher by day, at night I went home and worked on short stories. But something was happening to me. I felt frustrated by the work I was producing. I wanted to tell
, to have an engine on my tales that would drive them from suspenseful opening scenes to ironic or moving ends. But for the most part I was dwelling on my own psyche and limited experience of life, and my work seemed to lack narrative drive. I yearned to sprinkle the salt of plot over my paragraphs, but plots didn't come to me. My imagination was, I decided, impoverished.
Around that time, I began to collect newspaper articles that might trigger my recalcitrant imagination. I have them still, in a graying folder full of yellow clips: June 8, 1962, “Still No Clue to Killer. Five days of questioning have given Topeka police a fair outline of Daphne Rhodes' habits, an incomplete outline of her last hours alive, and no single useful clue to her killer. Since the 26-year-old New York divorcee was found raped and strangled in her apartment Sunday, a two-man team of detectives has repeatedly questioned the small circle of Menninger Clinic patients who were her friends and rechecked her apartment in a fruitless hunt for leads.” August 21, 1967, “Body of American Missing in Prague Is Found in River. A body identified as that of Charles H. Jordan, an American official of a Jewish relief organization, was found today in the Vitava River in Prague. An examining physician in Prague said the body had been in the water for several days. He was unable immediately to give the cause of death.”
I felt a little embarrassed by that folder of mysterious tragedies and hid it in the back of a drawer. But I knew by then (not that I'd learned it in college or graduate school; those were the days of the so-called New Criticism, and we studied almost exclusively an author's output, not his sources) that many of the writers I admired had treated themselves to the inspiration of current events. Defoe had read accounts about a man marooned on a desert island, and created
. Flaubert had been told by a friend about a doctor's dissatisfied wife who'd killed herself after having a series of lovers, and invented
. Dreiser had collected news stories about an ambitious shirt factory foreman who had drowned his pregnant millhand girl-friend in order to marry a socialite, and brought forth
An American Tragedy
. I kept hoping that the news events I was clipping would help me write richer fiction.
Also, around that time, the late 1960s, a new kind of journalistic work began to appear. In 1965, Truman Capote's
In Cold Blood
was published. He called it a “nonfiction novel,” a term that irritated a lot of my academic friends, but the book did indeed have many of the elements of a novelâa strong sense of place, characters whose internal thoughts as well as external acts were explored, and, most important, sequential action. In 1969, Norman Mailer published
Of a Fire on the Moon
, in which he himself became a character in the marvel of the moon shot. Gay Talese was writing about
as if he had access to the pathways of their neural space. Tom Wolfe was turning English on its head and making
dizzy, euphoric. Journalism had become more personal and unpredictable, and consequently suddenly exciting to me.
It was then that the idea first occurred to me that instead of using real events to fuel my fiction, I might try using fictional techniques to fuel nonfiction. I looked at my mystery clips and thought how challenging it would be to find out more about the events they described and, employing dialogue, dramatic scenes, and sequential action, try to turn some of them into nonfiction short stories. If I did, I thought, I'd never reproduce verbatim, as some nonfiction writers were doing (and regrettably still do), the bleak bones of research such as court transcripts, police records, and meandering interviews, but I'd rely on the selectivity that the pursuit of fiction had taught me, the discipline of making each detail telling and pace more prominent than packing.
I didn't, however, get the opportunity to try out my idea until the mid-1970s. Then I had what I will always think of as, callous though it may seem, the good fortune to have known someone involved in the kind of enigmatic tragedy I had habitually been clipping and was longing to write about: Cyril and Stewart Marcus, twin gynecologists, had been found dead from mysterious causes in a littered, garbage-ridden New York apartment; I had once been a patient of Stewart Marcus. I was able to convince
magazine to let me write about the brothers.
I later wrote a novel,
, that was inspired by the situation of the twins. But I had been bitten by the bug of actuality. And soon I began to concentrate on writing nonfiction accounts of murder and madness that tried at once to give the facts but also to let the story
, to emulate the short story by offering scenes and creating a feeling of immediacy.
I wrote the pieces that appear in this volume between 1975 and 1985. “The Professor and the Prostitute,” which comes first, was the last one I did, and it comes closest to what I had in mind when I first dreamed about making real events read like invented tales. Here, more than in any of the other, shorter pieces, the information gathered from interviews, transcripts, police records, and the like is buried in a snug narrative nest. But all the strands of that nest, even the lines of dialogue and paragraphs of interior musings, come from court documents or interviews.
Curiously, however, having at last taken a stylistic idea and gone with it as far as I could, I began to feel its confines. One is limited by available facts. The mind cries out to know the things one wasn't told, could not discover. What did the professor's wife
think about her disloyal husband? What did the prostitute's parents
think about their risk-taking daughter? There are things nonfiction accounts can never tell us, for invariably some of the principals of a story will not cooperate, or they hide their true feelings, or they are simply not in the habit of probing their minds and motivations to the extent, or with the depth, that a writer requires. Thus to attempt to dramatize real events while forcing oneself to stick to available source material is to be in a new kind of writerly prison, the victim not of impoverished imagination but of inventiveness longing to swirl free.